Sunday, February 22, 2015

Killer by David Drake & Karl Edward Wagner

The lizard-ape bounced to the earth like a cat, as the last two snarling hounds sprang for it together.  Spinning and slashing as it ducked under and away, the thing was literally a blur of motion.  Deadly motion.

I read a library copy of Killer when it was relatively new, in my teens, and parts of it have always stuck with me, maybe because when I read it I knew nothing about Ancient Rome.  Recently I was in South Carolina, and visited 2nd & Charles, a chain of used books/music stores which I guess fills a market niche similar to that filled by Half Price Books out here in the Central Time Zone.  (As a kid growing up in New Jersey I pitied people in the Central Time Zone, who had less time to do their homework and eat dinner before the prime time TV shows came on, and who would have to watch Johnny Carson at the early hour of 10:30.)  2nd & Charles had a copy of the same edition of Killer I had read in my youth, so I brought it back to my Middle West HQ and this weekend read it.

Nota bene: Only one of the book's
twenty-seven chapters is in space
The galaxy is ruled by the methane-breathing Cora, a race of varicolored blobs.  These killjoys have outlawed the blood sports that are such a common feature of SF stories, but oxygen-breathing biped RyRelee isn't going to let that harsh the buzz of fight fans everywhere.  RyRelee is a kind of secret agent or bounty hunter hired now and again by the Cora, but he has a side business supplying monsters to the arenas still in operation on scofflaw planets. Unfortunately, one of his monster transports just crashed on some Class 6 planet the primitive natives call Earth, and a female phile, just about the meanest creature known to interstellar civilization, is now loose in central Italy, the center of the empire ruled by Domitian, the eleventh Roman Emperor.  The phile, which the Earthlings take to calling a "lizard-ape," is almost unkillable, and if RyRelee doesn't capture it quick it will give birth to enough little philes to swamp the planet and exterminate all native life.  The Cora feel a responsibility to protect the peoples of primitive planets like Earth, so if the phile starts reproducing they plan to nuke the Mediterranean region from orbit to protect the rest of the humanity.

Before RyRelee sets foot on Earth (the plastic surgery which will allow him to blend in among the people of Italy takes a little time) Domitian puts Lycon the Greek on the lizard-ape case.  Lycon is a 40-something veteran of the Roman legions, the gladiatorial arena, and a career as a beastcatcher; he hunts tigers, lions, and other animals and brings 'em back alive to Rome.  When RyRelee presents himself to Domitian (in disguise as an Egyptian), the Emperor instructs Lycon and RyRelee to work together to catch the monster.  Part of the tension in the story comes from the fact that while the basically decent Lycon and the Cora are determined to destroy the menace, money-grubbing RyRelee and twisted sicko Domitian want to catch it alive (Domitian wants to watch it massacre animals in the arena.)

Did Baen pay a kid in candy bars for this cover?
Killer is a pretty straightforward adventure story.  There is an omniscient narrator, and we see the story unfold from the point of view of several characters, including the blue-scaled, bird-footed monster itself. There is a lot of action, and quite a bit of gore as the phile eviscerates animals and people and the sadistic Domitian tortures and murders people.  (Killer is one of those stories which on the one hand condemns people's bloodlust while on the other appealing to it.)

The adventure/horror elements work, as do the science fiction elements.  The techniques RyRelee uses to try to fit into Roman society, and the growing suspicions of canny Earthlings like Lycon of this strange man who claims to be an Egyptian but speaks Greek and Latin with weird accents and does odd things like touching sizzling hot metal without flinching, are engaging and add suspense.

All the references to Roman history and culture add another layer of interest to the book, and Drake and Wagner also set up lots of parallelisms between the human and alien characters.  The Cora are kind of like the Romans (arrogant jerks who make wide use of auxiliaries from other races/ethnicities and maintain order across a broad empire), Lycon is like RyRelee (both hunters who go to exotic lands on the periphery of civilization), and like the phile (both are expert killers who have been trained to fight in the arena for the pleasure of their so-called superiors.)

Killer is an entertaining mix of elements exploitative (depravity and gore) and highbrow (mentions of Horace and Euripides, descriptions of life in Ancient Rome.)  I enjoyed it.


There are eight pages of ads at the back of my 1985 printing of Killer.  The final two pages constitute an order form, while each of the other pages is devoted to a single publication.  Unfortunately most of these full page ads, which attempt to reproduce cover illustrations in black and white, look pretty bad.

Readers of any of the eighteen advertised books (and Killer, of course) are invited to comment.  Of all of them I have only read Jack Vance's Cugel's Saga, which I adore, of course.  I have read the title story of Joanna Russ's The Zanzibar Cat; it was thought-provoking, but not entertaining, like something a college professor would assign you to read to get you to think about the place of literature in society or something.

John Willett has only one novel listed at isfdb, but at least it is endorsed by famous scientist Robert Bussard.  Seven issues of Far Frontiers were produced, and then it changed its name to New Destinies, and endured for nine additional issues.  Keith Laumer and Fred Saberhagen are authors I feel like I should like, but whose work often feels kind of pedestrian when I read it.  I do plan on reading some of their signature works in the future.

I didn't think much of the Mack Reynolds I read.  I have the same attitude about Gordon R. Dickson that I have about Laumer and Saberhagen.  

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